Virtual Earth 3D Buildings vs. Google Earth

New search capability in Google EarthLast week Nathan Weinberg wrote at his InsideGoogle blog comparing Google Earth’s 3D model of the Miami SuperBowl Stadium verses the one in Microsoft’s Virtual Earth 3D (VE3D). He made some pretty negative comments about Google Earth’s 3D models. So, I posted a comment that he should look at the 3D buildings in Denver for Google Earth to make a fair comparison of the capabilities. Nathan has now posted his new review of Denver in 3D in both GE and VE3D and he gives it a pretty fair comparison. He says Google Earth’s 3D buildings do look really nice in Denver. He subjectively concludes VE3D and GE are a tie when it comes to Denver. There are a couple of technical details which I believe make Google Earth’s buildings look better, but in the final analysis I agree with Nathan on a key point: Google did indeed use some of its own people to create the Denver building collection. This hand-made approach does not scale well if you want every city in the world to have 3D buildings. Google has been providing the free Google SketchUp 3D modeling tool and allowing people to upload the models to their 3DWarehouse. This is working well for the larger and more interesting buildings around the world, but won’t work for all the rest of the buildings in the cities. I’m sure Google is well aware of this reality.
I understand from Microsoft that some of their buildings are hand made as well. But, the bulk are not. Microsoft’s approach is to take multiple aerial photos and using photogrammetry to calculate the size and shape of buildings and extract 3D building models and then use the photos to texture them. Microsoft’s huge investment to acquire and develop the technology, buy the camera assets, hire teams of aerial photographers to collect the data, and the storage and processing costs will ultimately enable them to create building models for nearly complete cities around the world in a scaleable fashion.
The jury is still out whether an approach Google may take in the future could not be done more cost effectively with the same or better results. Google has a growing list of cities with 3D buildings. But, right now Microsoft seems to be on the faster track to add detailed photo-textured 3D buildings. Google has similar financial resources and a lot of brain power, so there’s no reason to believe Google has to fall behind in this one area – 3D Buildings. In the meantime, Google Earth enjoys a very healthy lead with regards to imagery, user-base, a mature delivered series of products, millions of user contributed data files, and the huge repository of data sitting in the layers of Google Earth which many people have yet to explore.

About Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor started the Google Earth Blog in July, 2005 shortly after Google Earth was first released. He has worked with 3D computer graphics and VR for many years and was very impressed with this exciting product. Frank completed a 5.5 year circumnavigation of the earth by sailboat in June 2015 which you can read about at Tahina Expedition, and is a licensed pilot, backpacker, diver, and photographer.

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.


  1. I do think VE’s buildings look better and less cartoonish than Google Earth. But to truly compare these two applications, it seems you have to take into account the different user bases. I imagine Microsoft designed VE for a user that mostly wants to find directions, search for businesses, and perhaps shop online, and who wants a seamless in-browser experience without having to fuss with layers and irrelevant content.
    Google has designed a much richer application that, while it can do all the above, can also be put toward scientific, historical, environmental, social and humanitarian ends. I would guess that GE users tend to be more technically oriented folks who are more likely to create their own content, be it 3d buildings or placemarks or earthquake data. This potential for mashups makes GE far more exciting, in my mind, than VE, where you can only look at whatever data Microsoft serves you.
    I’m sure google will eventually figure out a way to monetize GE, but I’d like to hope that it won’t interfere with these ‘nobler’ purposes. To create such a fantastic virtual world just so you can find a nearby pizza joint just seems so…mundane.
    Fortunately, it looks like at least some of the folks over at google share this view:

  2. Whatever happened to Google’s plan “to use trucks equipped with lasers and digital photographic equipment to create a realistic 3D online version of San Francisco, and eventually other major US cities.”

  3. I wanted to call to your attention some recent news that the ministry of education of guatemala has posted a new information system. It uses google earth to display all of the schools of guatemala with pictures and links to statistics of every school. I work for the ministry of the environment and we are planning to do the same with the ecológical information. (dumpsters, protected areas, species and their geografical habitat, and more) the link to the new information system of the ministry of education is and the link to the information system of the environment is (in construction and still working to implement kml).

  4. Bertell Ollman says

    Nathan Weinburg?
    I think I went to school with that bloke!

  5. I have a intermediate speed internet connection.
    Following your post I tried VE3D for the first time.
    I wasn’t impressed with the download speed of it compared to GE.
    For me that a big plus for Google Earth! The virtual experience in GE is far more smoother for me.

  6. I agree Google Earth is better than virtual Earth only because Google Earth covers more cities & the models look more realistic.

  7. Matthew Hurst says

    I’m not convinced that GE has a ‘healthy lead’ with imagery. If you look outside the US, I find Google to be lacking in many of the corner cases. Their approach to blurring or smoothing large oceans results in many islands disappearing off the map – islands which do appear in other services. Google is also pretty far behind in terms of mapping information. Take a look at Malaysia!

  8. I don’t understand the rush by both GE and VE to build a bunch of empty low-poly boxes with poor material mapping. These buildings will all eventually need to be re-modeled and refined. What we really need is buildings that contain real data about their construction and the people/companies that are currently in them. Imagine visiting a GE city and seeing it’s inhabitants moving around/inside buildings in real-time through “voluntary” GPS tracking.
    I would love to know if anyone has created a GE building that has more than just the exterior shell. Would it be possible that a building can have clickable floor plates?

  9. Can anyone make 3D images for me. Perhaps 10 a week but must be really good 3D… not the ones from photoshop with 1 level. Cost??

  10. Yes Eddie, we can make it for you at very low cost.

  11. Some Nice info on gearthblog. Thanks for sharing

PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.